I remember my first class as an undergraduate: Intro to Psychology. Wide-eyed and ready to vanquish the world from psychological trauma, I eagerly anticipated the first life-altering words to come from my professor’s illustrious lips. I waited with bated breath as he introduced himself and asked us all to settle in – and then? After a brief mention of the syllabus, he carried on about plagiarism and cheating and the like.
I remember being sceptical of the entire concept of plagiarism. I mean, how would they really know if I was doing it? (Not that I ever would of course!) They can’t have memorized every article about everything. Impossible. However as a consequence of many repetitions of this speech, I did spend a large part of my undergraduate career in mild apprehension that I would not attribute a quote accurately or sufficiently and be accused of such.
I look back now and find it laughable that I could have possibly considered my own writing to be of such high calibre that it wouldn’t be immediately apparent if I engaged in such behaviour. But even more than amused, I’m actually kind of sad. This topic seems to have encroached on my domain with increasing regularity of late. From punitive letters I’ve recently had to file, to research on the topic for our graduate studies policies, to this article  written last month by one of our UVenus writers.
While reading that UVenus post, I was reflecting on it both as a student and as an employee of the University. I found that even in both roles, I was quite surprised by both the content of the article, and even more so by the comments.
I am exhausted. Working full-time and taking two courses this semester is sapping my energy and making me a significantly less delightful person to be around. And yet, I took it on – which means that any regrets must be swallowed and I remind myself that it’s temporary and the reward will make it worthwhile. The thought never occurs to me to ask for paper extensions, to complain about a grade, nor to feel I’m owed any kind of special consideration.
So to see a comment on that post implying that the writer is in some way responsible for the multiple acts of plagiarism that she experienced is appalling to me. Seriously? This is what students have been reduced to? Innocent children who don’t know that cheating is wrong? Wow.
What are we really teaching them? Is our concern for their self-esteem more important than teaching them the valuable lesson of consequences, deadlines and pride in their work? Once they leave the education system, it’s certainly not the responsibility of their future employer to nurture them through behaviour that is damaging to the organization. It will come as a real shock to these students when the real world sends them to the unemployment line, gives them poor credit ratings, or sends them to jail for missing deadlines, missing payments or cheating.
It seems to me that these cheating students are missing the point. It’s not to get an A; the point is to learn; to be enriched by education; to hand in a piece of work and to know that they earned that grade. Something inside of them created that scholarly work, a work completely unique to them. This is work that was reviewed and assessed and critiqued by someone who has been through the same experiences, someone who does have wisdom, someone in whom they should place their trust that whatever feedback they receive is worth weighing and internalizing and responding to in turn.
It’s the journey, not the destination.
So to all you instructors out there who are lenient with your students in the spirit of offering them nurturing guidance –I urge you to re-consider. Do you really think that students don’t know that cheating is wrong? I think laying down firm consequences is actually teaching them – perhaps not a lesson that you had on your syllabus, but a practical life lesson that will help them no matter where future paths take them.
Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada
Deanna England can be reached by email at Deanna.England@insidehighered.com. She is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus .